(A novel by Susan Overturf)
[“No one knew what to do, and Margaret seemed to be lost in her own private hell.”]
I awoke the next morning with many things on my mind. Hattie was at the top of the list, of course. I had not expected so much of my time to be consumed by Hattie’s request, but I understood the urgency of it (she wasn’t getting any younger) and her desire to know the truth. If I had been in her shoes, I know that I would have had the same desire. In fact, I probably would have tried to find the answers a lot sooner than Hattie had.
My father, a World War II veteran, had been taciturn and abusive, returning from the war a very different man than before he left. My mother had stuck with him, despite the abuse, and when I was old enough to leave, I did. As I grew older, however, I had wanted to understand both of my parents better, and to try to unravel the reason for my father’s alcoholism and abuse. I did the usual therapy route, as everyone seems to do these days, but I also dug into my parents’ lives and learned more about them.
I was sure that if Hattie could learn more about her real parents, she would feel more comfortable inside her own skin. I was pretty sure that it wouldn’t matter what I found out, either, so I was determined to go ahead as quickly as possible. That meant contacting Betty to see if I could learn about her daughter, Margaret, and perhaps make contact with Margaret.
Although Matthew, Betty’s husband, had been the more compliant of Hattie’s two brothers, I was still anxious to talk to Betty privately, as I felt quite sure she had been somewhat distant on my visit because she was not willing to say much in front of Matthew. I had sensed, however, that she held some measure of control in the relationship, since she asked that we not talk about Hattie until she had the tea ready and several times during the conversation she told Matthew to calm down.
There was no need to wait: I dialed their number. Betty had answered the phone the first time I had called, and I was hoping she would do so again. I was in luck: it was her voice after the second ring.
“Betty, this is Dorthea Parsons. Do you remember me?”
“Yes, of course, I do. How are you, Dorthea?”
Once the polite conversation was over, Betty asked why I was calling. My plan was to talk to her alone, so I suggested that she and I might meet somewhere for a cup of coffee and a little chat. She named a small coffee shop on Commercial and 6th Avenue, roughly half-way between our two places, not far from the Skytrain station. We agreed to meet there at 2:00 that afternoon.
The rest of the morning flew by. Since Betty had been so well-dressed when I met her before, I decided to jazz up my outfit just a bit. I chose a black wool suit — pants and jacket — and matched it up with a bright green silk blouse. I wore silver earrings — little daisies on a chain — and my wedding ring and birthstone.
I was on my way to the skytrain station promptly at 1:30. I reached the little coffee shop on Commercial Drive a few minutes ahead of 2:00, found a table and ordered a coffee, when Betty arrived. As I had expected, she had again dressed up: this time in a beige pair of slacks, a white blouse, and a tan jacket. She spotted me as soon as she came in the door, and came directly over to the table.
“I hope I haven’t kept you waiting,” she said.
“No. I just got here.”
While we waited for the coffee, our conversation was light and without much substance. She told me that Matthew was not feeling well — his leg often bothered him, she said — and so she welcomed the chance to get out.“I don’t get out very much at all,” she said.
“Do you and Matthew do things together?”
“No. Never. But that’s the way it’s always been with us.”
“Did you work, Betty?”
“Yes. Who can get by on just one salary?”
“What did you do?”
“I worked at The Bay for thirty years. Just a sales clerk. But it paid a few bills.”
“How did you manage with the children?”
“Gerald and Margaret were born early in our marriage. When Margaret was ready for school, I started working. I was 35 years old, and had not had much work experience. During the War, I was too young to get a job, but when I turned 17 — I worked as a sales clerk. So when I went looking for a job at 35, I went back to the one thing I had ever done. I always wished that I had finished high school, but my family needed the money.”
“You could finish high school now, if you wanted to.”
“Oh, I’m too old now. It doesn’t matter.”
Betty frowned, and I sensed a deep sadness in her, so I changed the subject.
“Tell me about your children.”
It was obvious that Betty was very proud of her children. “Gerald, my oldest, is 57 years old! I can’t believe it. He is an architect here in Vancouver. He’s worked for several firms over the years, but now he works independently and seems to have no trouble finding work. He’s not done well financially but he’s managed to pay the bills.”
“Is he married? Got kids?”
“No,” Betty said slowly. “I wish.”
“Sometimes our children don’t always do what we want them to do,” I said. “I have one son who’s married and has a child. The other son is still single, and I think he may always be.”
“Gerald just seemed very involved with his buddies and his work. Those are the only two things that drove him. He isn’t lonely. I think he just likes having total control over his life.”
I nodded my head in agreement. “Well, there is something to be said for that.”
And then I changed the subject: “What about Margaret, your daughter?”
Betty sighed. “Margaret has had a tough life. She did well at first. She got good grades in school and went on to get her teaching degree at SFU. She taught Grade 5 for many years right here in Vancouver.”
“I noticed you used the past tense. What is she doing now?”
It was obvious that it was difficult for Betty to tell me what had happened to her daughter. Every line on her face seemed to deepen as she said to me: “Margaret was fine until she was about 35 years old, or maybe a little older. We didn’t see her every day so we didn’t realize what was happening. But she got ill. Mental illness. Depression. Personality Disorder. Manic-depression. Schizophrenia. A lot of terms were thrown out to us by the doctors who saw her, but no one seemed to really know what was happening. She just stopped functioning.“
“Was she married?”
“Yes, but the marriage was falling apart before her illness. When things got really tough, he bailed out on her. I don’t even know where he is any more.”
“What has happened to Margaret?”
“For a while, she lived with us. The doctors tried several medications with her. Some worked a little. Some didn’t work at all. Sometimes she was hyper because of the drugs. Sometimes she was almost comatose because of the drugs. No one knew what to do, and Margaret seemed to be lost in her own private hell.”
“That must have been very difficult.”
“It was. But we kept trying. And then one day I came home, and Margaret was gone. She had just packed a bag of her things and left.”
“When was that?”
“I don't know. More than ten years ago. She was just gone, and I couldn’t find her.”
My heart fell. I was afraid to ask if Betty knew where Margaret was now.
“Did she leave any of her belongings behind?” I asked, hoping that perhaps the letter might actually be in Betty and Matthew’s house.
“Not a thing.”
“Do you still not know where she is?” I asked.
“I found her, after about a year, living on the streets. She spends most of her time near the West End. She sometimes finds a place to stay at night, but not always. She finds things in dumpsters and tries to sell them, but she also spends a lot of time just begging for money on Robson Street.”
I could tell that this story was very hard for Betty to tell me. Her once-beautiful and talented daughter was now living on the streets, alone and homeless, frightened and mentally ill, perhaps using drugs. I could not truly imagine what a nightmare it would be to know that your child was in that situation.
“Do you still see her?”
“Not very often, no. Sometimes she calls me, and we talk. But her conversations are often disjointed and unclear. I’m never sure how she really is.”
A silence fell between us. I could almost feel the heaviness of Betty’s heart.
“Is there anything I can do, Betty? Would you like me to try to find Margaret?”
“No, nothing. She’s not your problem. I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
After hearing Margaret’s story, I found it difficult to ask Betty about the letter. For a moment, I thought perhaps I would not bring it up. I would just start searching the streets for Margaret and, if I found her, perhaps she would be lucid enough to tell me what happened to the letter which Mary, her aunt, had given her. But then I realized that Betty might know something.
“Betty, I am so sorry for what has happened to Margaret, and I know that this has been very difficult for both you and Matthew.”
Betty scoffed, “Matthew doesn’t care about anything except his TV shows and sports. He hasn’t given Margaret a second thought.” Betty’s bitterness was palpable.
“I’m sorry.” Once again, I had been sidetracked from the letter. I tried again: “Betty, what do you know, if anything, about this letter in the Carlson family which has something to do with Hattie’s real parents?”
Betty stared at me, apparently surprised that I knew anything about a letter. “You’ve been doing your homework, haven’t you?”
“Well, I’ve been trying to help Hattie,” I said, somewhat defensively.
Betty placed her hands on the table and tapped the fingers of her right hand. “Yes,” she said. “I know about the letter.”
“What do you know?”
“What do you know?” she mimicked back.
“I know that there was a letter, written by Matilda, and given to Martha. That Martha gave it to Mary.”
“Why are you surprised?”
“Well, Mary and I are married to brothers. James and Hattie have always fought. Matthew and Hattie have gotten along better. Why would my mother-in-law choose to give the letter to Mary, James’s wife, and not to me?”
“I don’t have any idea what Martha had in mind. I just know what she did.”
Betty acted disturbed and upset. “I wonder why Mary never told me,” she said.
“Perhaps because she was sworn to secrecy,” I replied.
I let Betty digest the information. A few minutes passed in silence. Then I asked:
“How do you know about the letter?”
“Oh, there have been rumours about this letter for years, even before Matilda died. Mary and I sometimes talked about it, but she never indicated that she had it.”
“She didn’t get it until much later, just shortly before Martha died.”
“Oh, well, I haven’t seen much of Mary in the last few years, especially since Margaret’s illness.”
I debated in my mind whether or not to tell Betty that her sister-in-law had given the letter to Margaret, and not to her. She was already upset that her mother-in-law had chosen Mary over her. How would she react to the knowledge that Mary had again passed her by and given the letter to her daughter? Weighing the pros and cons — very quickly — in my mind, I decided I had to take the risk, no matter whether it hurt Betty’s feelings or not.
“Betty,” I said gently, “Mary gave the letter to Margaret.”
“To Margaret?” she shouted. “Oh, my heavens! Well, then, it’s lost for sure!”
She looked around to see if her voice had carried to the other tables. It had, and a few people were staring. She mumbled “sorry” and turned back to me. “I can’t believe that Mary would give the letter to Margaret and not to me.”
“At the time, she was thinking that it should go to someone younger who would be able to take care of it for a long time. And I don’t think she knew about Margaret’s illness.”
Betty thought for a moment. “Let’s see. When did you say Mary gave it to Margaret?”
"I'm not sure of the exact date, but it was about 10 years after Matilda died."
“Yes, that was about the beginning of Margaret’s troubles. A lot of people didn’t know about her illness. We didn’t advertise it. And Margaret had many lucid days when she seemed perfectly fine. She didn’t come to live with us until maybe three years later.”
“So it’s possible, isn’t it, that she still has the letter, or she put it somewhere safe before she became ill?”
“Do you mind if I try to find Margaret and ask her about the letter?”
“Why would I mind?” she asked defensively.
“I just thought you might feel as though I were invading your family’s privacy.”
Betty shook her head. “Margaret has dug her own hole and jumped in. I take no blame.”
This was not the same Betty I had seen moments ago. Now she was cold and hard. The transition from the troubled, concerned mother to this was quite stark. I felt as though I were talking to a multiple personality and a new one had just come out.
“Go ahead and look for her,” Betty said. “I don’t care.”
“Do you have any suggestions where I might begin?”
“No.” Her answer was emphatic and left no room for discussion.
Betty’s demeanour changed again, softened. “Oh. Well. Yes, I suppose. But don’t tell Matthew. He says he doesn’t have a daughter any more.”
I think I understood Betty’s changing moods. No mother wants to think about their mentally ill child, even if they are now an adult, who is living on the streets. In order to cope, I’m sure that one’s mind has to shut down now and then and just try to forget.
Betty and I said our good-byes, and I watched her walk down Commercial Drive, walking tall but alone and defenceless. She had not had a happy life; she was returning to a marriage in name only. I felt sorry for her, but there was nothing I could do for her.
I returned to the Skytrain station and made it home in less than half an hour. As I climbed the stairs to my apartment, I wondered how I would go about finding Margaret. As I opened the stairwell door into the hall, Mark was saying good-bye to a client.
“Dorthea,” he said. “How’s it going?”
The client said good-bye and then Mark turned his full attention to me.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“You look as though you’ve got something on your mind. Am I right?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” I told Mark, as briefly as I could, about my search for Hattie’s real parents, and about the infamous letter. His ears perked up, though, when I said that I needed to find Margaret, now a woman in her 50’s, who lives on the streets, mostly in the West End and down on Hastings, because she might still have this letter. It seemed like a daunting task.
Mark rescued me very quickly: “I can help, Dorthea. I have a lot of friends who work with street people and help out at soup kitchens and stuff. I can probably find Margaret for you.”
I was relieved to have a working partner. “I’d be happy to go with you,” I said.
Mark nodded his head. “Great. What are you doing tomorrow? I’ve taken a day off — no appointments — and we could begin our search. Are you up to it?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
We agreed to meet in the hallway at 10:00 a.m. the next morning. My evening was quiet and relaxing; I ate a small supper, read for a while, listened to some music, and went to bed early. I was confident — well, all right, hopeful — that we’d find Margaret and the letter tomorrow.
- Continue to Chapter 10.
- Refer to Family Tree to keep relationship of characters in mind.
- Return to Table of Contents of Chapters in Secrets.
Disclaimer: Let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.